Saturday, January 31, 2009

Geoffrey Hartman, Geoffrey Hartman

Many weird moments of recognition today, reading around in Geoffrey Hartman's Beyond Formalism. This is what inevitably happens when you take a look at work by any prestigious and influential academic or intellectual of the past: you start to see where certain ideas, attitudes, turns of phrase originated, or at least became codified (perhaps not for the first time), to survive in other scholars' essays, lectures, marginal notes, classroom banter or department small talk. The university system is an echo chamber, and words uttered as loudly and persuasively as Hartman's ultimately travel all over.

Anyway, there's a lot I could pick up on, but I'll focus on one thing, which kind of builds off Mike's recent post about a kind of return to structuralism that may or may not be happening in the American academy today. A running theme in the book is Hartman's anxiousness to avoid charges of elitism which I guess were being leveled at English academics — particularly formalists — around that time, and to develop a rationale for the teaching of literature that pays equal attention to both form and history while avoiding mystification. (Sound familiar? If not I guess we're not having the same nightmares.) This desire — to reach more ordinary citizens while holding on to literary and academic respectability — somehow got bound up with the project of structuralism, as embodied in the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss. From the first essay, "Structuralism: The Anglo-American Adventure," one can scent the pre-Althusserian humanist hopefulness in the air: "The aim of myth criticism … is to save the common nature of man — despite fragmentation, specialization, and ideological wars" (9); and, even more touchingly: "[c]ulture aims to do away with classes, as Matthew Arnold says; we are all spiritual Marxists" (11).

The best hope Hartman sees for this on the American scene is Northrop Frye, who, as Mike points out, Hartman saw as a North American analogue to the kind of structuralist myth criticism Lévi-Strauss was doing. In the second essay, "Ghostlier Demarcations: The Sweet Science of Northrop Frye," Hartman sees Frye as making a further advance on the democratizing impulse of the New Criticism, "the attempt to open literature to the direct understanding of students of any background." This is a way of seeing the New Criticism that we sometimes lose: not a power grab by prestige-hungry literary scholars, nor an attempt to banish history by ideologically motivated aesthetes, but a concerted effort to distribute cultural capital to the dispossessed: in other words, an American Leavisism. The scientistic trappings of the New Criticism, which Frye took even further, is seen not as a pretension but as a genuine attempt to make literary knowledge more accessible to students: "To systematize criticism is to universalize it, to put its intellectual or spiritual techniques into the hands of every intelligent person, even every child" (25).

But Hartman also charges Frye with "fus[ing], or confus[ing] … two notions of universality": the "scientific" and the "evangelical." The "scientific" notion insists on the subject's learnability, the establishment of "elementary principles explainable to everyone" — thus, as in the sciences, requiring a caste of literary scientists who decide the rules, and explain the principles, and keep things from getting too muddled. The second, on the other hand, "holds that critics have stood like priests between literature and those desiring to participate in it" — it thus opposes the critic's claim to a special status vis-à-vis the child/student.

Hartman very shrewdly zeroes in on this tension within universality. As I see it, the two notions are not really incompatible — we may need scientist/priests to teach students the rules of literature, as we do the rules of math, but then want them to step aside and let each reader perform the operations as they will — but the emphases are different, and the difference has large consequences for how we view literary criticism and professorship. The scientific notion continues to value the critic/professor, but just makes her role a lot more specific and specialized; the evangelical notion devalues her, by insisting that her job is to do no more than provide an elementary introduction, and then step aside.

My problem with Frye's "evangelical" position, as Hartman represents it, is that it works well only if we view all of literature as a set of static categories. That is, if we think that, once a student has mastered a typology of literary genres, periods, forms and authors, they will have a practical mastery over the field of literature. This (very weak) version of structuralism lacks any sense of agency, of the ways by which this diachronic structure (The History of Literature) is affected by a new synchronic arrangement (Literature Today). (Hartman himself makes a similar complaint about Frye's methods, on the level of the individual work, when he says that "Frye's concept of literary structure is consciously spatial. It depends on a disjunction between our immediate experience of literature, which is guided by the tempo of the work, and criticism, which lays out the completed pattern spatially," 33.) In other words, one of the most significant properties of literature as a social practice is that it is susceptible — one might even say especially susceptible — to undergoing revolutions and revaluations. These happen, in fact, much more frequently than Kuhnian "scientific revolutions" or Foucaultian epistemic breaks: they are happening almost all the time, as styles and texts and authors become de- and revalued by various agents at various levels of the structure. So that one of the most important parts of understanding literature is understanding how literature continually reshapes itself, as a structure.

So, my argument runs, we need professors and critics not only to judge literature, but also to understand intuitively how literature functions, in something like the way that first-order practitioners (authors, publishers, informed readers, etc.) understand it. This view is something like Frye or Lévi-Strauss' synoptic vision, but it includes within it the principle of change, of agency (and this necessarily includes a sense of the limitations on change and agency that the literary field imposes).

But, a further question: could one teach this principle of change? Is there something operating here besides intuition, and a good working knowledge of the structures literature has formed in the past? And, further yet, would it be a useful skill to impart? Could understanding how a loosely held-together structure like literature adapts itself to cultural change help students seize something of the logic of cultural change around them? I think it might, but one has to avoid the short-circuit, the scholastic fallacy that to understand is to master. One would have to emphasize that understanding literature as a structure or system improves your chances of affecting it, or even participating in it to the extent of reading at the level of its first-order practitioners, but that "figuring it out" is not the same as "seeing through it" (as some versions of Marxist theory, grounded in ideology critique, still suggest). The advantage of an approach like Franco Moretti's is that it's bringing back the sense of literature as a contingent structure; but what it doesn't offer is any idea of how one might impose oneself into that structure: how to contribute to it or, if you prefer, fight against it or change it. Similarly, Frye's schema would teach students how to classify the literature of the past, but not necessarily how to look at two literary works of the same period — as one does, for instance, in a contemporary literary magazine — and relate them to each other, and to the structure of society. And this is what people do all the time with literature (and other forms of art): it's ordinary. Which is exactly why we should be teaching people to do it better.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

John Updike R.I.P.

Somehow I didn't think this would ever happen.

Monday, January 26, 2009

He's on a roll

Two more good ones:

"An exclusive art form is a monster. It delivers art into the hands of the common crowd, because when only some of them can become insiders, they all want to, and art begins to live off the side effects of exclusivity."


"The aesthete's life is not so far from the politician's as people think. Life resolves itself into a line for the politician, a surface for the aesthete. The void game they both play leads them equally far from the life of the mind, to some place where they are not even worth considering. It is tragic to be protested by one of these two when one wants nothing to do with the other, and to belong to one group just because one despises the other. But from the heights of true spirituality one comes to see politics as just an aesthetic bauble and the orchid as a partisan flower. The same lack of personality drives one to reduce life to matter, the other to form. They want nothing to do with each other, but they belong at the same slaughterhouse."

— Karl Kraus, Dicta and Contradicta, 75-76

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Mildly Missionary

My interview with everybody's favorite Charles Barnwell Straut Professor of English and Comparative Literature is now up at

Saturday, January 24, 2009


"The value of education makes itself clearest when educated people start talking about a problem lying outside their specialty."

— Karl Kraus, Dicta and Contradicta, 58

Friday, January 23, 2009

The school's the same / The terms are changing

"It is worth recognizing that education is the epitome of what one has forgotten. Beyond this it is a disease, a burden on the educated person's environment. It is ridiculous to reform the dead languages out of the schools on the grounds that no one needs them in practical life. The day to abolish them would be the day they become practical. Certainly they do not help you to quiz your way through the tourist sites of Rome and Athens. But they sow in us the ability to imagine them. School is a poor place to amass practical knowledge. But mathematics cleanses the neural pathways, and even when one must swot up on dates one promptly forgets after graduation, one is not doing something useless. The only misguided thing is German language class. But in exchange one learns Latin, which still has a special value. Do well in German and you become a German military man. Do badly in German but well in Latin and you might become a German author. What school can do is create that vapor of living things that draws an individuality out of its shell. If a pupil still knows years later exactly which act of which classical drama a quote comes from, the school has failed. If he knows where it might have come from, he is truly educated and the school has achieved its goal perfectly."

— Karl Kraus, Dicta and Contradicta, 56-57

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Go forth unafraid

The new issue of Take The Handle features a song by my high school band, The Trains (click "Flexi-Single"). For the record, that's not me singing.

Also, more contemporaneously, there's a great essay by my friend David about having been a chess prodigy. (Click "Ladies of the 80's.")

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

"Barbershop conversations are the incontrovertible proof that heads are there to hold hair.

"When I get my hair cut I worry the barber will cut through one of my thoughts.

"It is always one's fault when one gets cut by the barber's razor. I, for example, cringe when the barber talks about politics; the others get nervous when he doesn't. In neither case is it his fault when someone gets cut."

— Karl Kraus, Dicta and Contradicta, 41

Did You Say Popular?

Simon Reynolds on Vampire Weekend, who at this point are maybe in a phase of Backlash Backlash Backlash Backlash? (Call it dialectical careerism.) I especially like this:

Given the nature of modern media and our crazed archival culture, it's obvious that no halfway sentient band can come into being without premeditation, the meticulous marshalling and coordination of influences and reference points. Knowingness irretrievably entered the water table long ago, and Vampire Weekend simply take this foundation of modern music — the impossibility of not overthinking things, of not riddling your work with footnotes and hyperlinks — and push through to full-blown conceptualism … Pressed to distill that merger's essence to a phrase, I'd offer "form & formality."

And I'm a little uncomfortable about, but basically agree with, this:

They've merely outed the truth of indie, which was never really The People's Music for all its affected sloppiness and "beautiful loser" tropes, instead always much more of an upper-middle-class milieu, the kids recoiling from the commercial and mass-produced just like their parents did via artisanal foodstuffs and antiques.

But I really don't know about this:

How righteous that 2008 should have started with some literally African-American music to herald the election of a literally African-American president. Funny, too, how all the attributes that describe (and, in some eyes, condemn) the band — cultivated and cosmopolitan, calm and collected, cautious and clean-cut — apply so amply to Obama. It's as if history had twisted its way around to arrive at a place where the virtues in our polity are also the virtues in our pop music. Unlike sax addict Bill C. or faux-populist George W., our new prez doesn't have a rock 'n' roll bone in his body, and neither do Vampire Weekend. This year's best, their album is not Gossip Girl set to music, but a soundtrack for the liberal elite taking over.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Our new motto?

"This is not to say that Marx's propositions were wrong, although they were sometimes expressed so over-confidently that they licensed wrong conclusions. It was important to learn that neurosis was not caused by Satanic possession, and important to learn that human affairs did not express the mind of divine providence, or of great men, or of unfolding Ideas, or of a benevolent class-neutered market. Marx took knowledge across a threshold, pointed her towards the world, and told her to go and find out. And in that outer world, beyond the secure 'base' of the mode of production, many of the most cherished of human concerns are sited."

— E.P. Thompson, The Poverty of Theory, 161

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Crush That Mushroom

Matthew Perpetua on Lily Allen (not that it matters too much):

"Vapid, cynical, hyper-consumerist neo-celebs of the Paris Hilton/Heidi Montag variety are utterly loathsome, but when we tear into them in comedy and art, it can often seem too easy and overly mean-spirited in way that eclipses any righteousness we could hope to claim in calling out their grotesque antics. Yes, they are clearly villains in the context of our culture, but on scale, they’re more like the Goombas in the Super Marios Bros. games — cannon fodder along the path to the Big Bosses."

Super Mario Brothers seems to have created epistemological categories for a whole generation of Americans (and Britons; see Lanchester, op. cit.). Shouldn't somebody get to work on an ethical system based on this game?

Monday, January 12, 2009

You want a social life, with friends

Meant to post this a little while ago, but it's always relevant:

You want a social life, with friends

You want a social life, with friends,
A passionate love life and as well
To work hard every day. What's true
Is of these three you may have two
And two can pay you dividends.
But never may have three.

There isn't time enough, my friends —
Though dawn begins, yet midnight ends —
To find the time to have love, work, and friends.
Michelangelo had feeling
For Vittoria and the Ceiling
But did he go to parties at day's end?

Homer nightly went to banquets
Wrote all day but had no lockets
Bright with pictures of his Girl.
I know one who loves and parties
And has done so since his thirties
But writes hardly anything at all.

— Kenneth Koch

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Friday, January 9, 2009

Ludic lucidity

"Clarity comprehends a third element beyond familiarity and clarity, ludic scoring. Clarity must not show off. But serious prejudice aside, clarity contains enormous show-off zest. Clarity signifies, after all, an immense act of exclusion, of restraint. It is an affair of timing, potentially — like brevity — of wit. Clarity, no one points out, always means daring simplification and much trickery … Clarity gets back in combativeness the pleasure it sacrifices in renouncing ornament."

— Richard A. Lanham, The Motives of Eloquence, 21-22

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Determined by others

There's a very good piece in the new London Review of Books (online here) by John Lanchester about video games. It mostly focuses on their development as an emerging art form, their capacities for fostering creativity and agency, and other mildly optimistic stuff along Steven Johnsonian lines. But he also allows himself this passing dystopian comment:

Most games … are work-like. They have a tightly designed structure in which the player has to earn points to win specific rewards, on the way to completing levels which earn him the right to play on other levels, earn more points to win other rewards, and so on, all of it repetitive, quantified and structured. The trouble with these games … isn't that they're maladapted to the real world, it's that they're all too well adapted. The people who play them move from an education, much of it spent in front of a computer screen, full of competitive, repetitive, quantifiable, measured progress towards goals determined by others, to a work life, much of it spent in front of a computer screen, full of competitive, repetitive, quantifiable, measured progress towards goals determined by others, and for recreation sit in front of a computer screen and play games full of competitive, repetitive, quantifiable, measured progress towards goals determined by others. Most video games aren't nearly irresponsible enough.

Lanchester's adapting this argument from Steven Poole, who makes it in a somewhat more inflated, Adornian/Debordian way; and the whole thing deserves (and doubtless will receive) a more detailed sociological analysis. But still, point taken. I've had similar thoughts about the internet, in its interactive web 2.0 phase: on the one hand it involves us and lets us exercise our creativity (and, even better, reasserts creativity's social basis), but hasn't it made a lot of us a lot more addicted to doing supposedly fun things that look, from the outside, a lot like office work? And that can feel a lot like it too?

Also, did you know that "Nintendo began life in the late 19th century as a maker of card games"?

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Export strength

"In closing this very imperfect survey of the influence of American books on the non-American world, one thing is obvious. The influence of American literature has been distinctly good. What there is of evil in it has been consumed at home. The broad Atlantic has acted as a potent antiseptic, which has killed noxious germs and only left that which is healthy, helpful, and human to reach our shores. American humor has contributed much to the gaiety of the world, and American poetry has been both refining and inspiring in its influence on the masses of our people."

-- W.T. Stead, The Americanization of the World, or: The Trend of the Twentieth Century. London: Horace Markley, 1901. p. 289.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Hunting of the Snark

"You have to give David Denby credit for bravery: Writing a book titled Snark: It's Mean, It's Personal, and It's Ruining Our Conversation is like writing a book called Keying My Car: It's The Wrong Thing To Do or Why Flaming Bags of Dog Poop on My Doorstep Just Aren't Funny. You invite the transgression even as you decry it; you loose the hounds on yourself."

— Adam Sternbergh on David Denby in New York Magazine, Jan. 5-12, 2009

The Yr That Wuz

Notcoming's 2008-in-review feature is now up, within which I wax economic and probabilistic about A Christmas Tale. And while we're at it, there's this and this and this.

Sunday, January 4, 2009


"The second Ministry representative is a middle-aged man with a fringe of beard, like the fearsome tutors in The Famous Five … He is a theoretician. His interventions will be so many calls to order concerning the importance of methodology and, more generally, of reflection prior to action. At this juncture I don't see why: the software is already paid for, there's no more need to reflect, but I refrain from saying so. I immediately get the feeling he doesn't like me. How can I gain his love? I decide that on several occasions in the morning I will support his interventions with a slightly stupid expression of admiration, as if he'd suddenly opened up astonishing perspectives for me, full of wisdom and breadth. He must, in the normal course of things, conclude from this that I am a young man of goodwill, ready to engage myself under his orders in the proper direction."

— Michel Houellebecq, Whatever, trans. Paul Hammond, 32-33